Members of the Maine chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America organized the event, which was also intended to raise awareness of not just mass shootings, but also domestic violence, suicide and other forms of gun violence. Before protesters arrived, organizers lined the front of the Congress Square Park stage with 150 pairs of shoes to symbolize the average number of Mainers who die from gun violence each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You’ve seen a lot of action spurred in the wake of the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton,” said Geoff Bickford of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition. “I think we’ve just reached a breaking point, and people are just sick of it. And they know that something needs to be done and it’s Washington and Augusta that’re getting in the way.”
A slate of speakers spoke in favor of measures to improve gun safety.
“We are the mass shooting generation,” Pearl Stuart, of Students Demand Action, told the crowd. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. … Allow us to go back to school in T-minus 17 days feeling safe and ready to learn. Pass laws that will keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, who is also a candidate for U.S. Senate, also called for Congress to take action.
“You all know that there are so many things that we could do,” Gideon said. “But a couple of them that are right at our fingertips — and yes, that we have not gotten over the finish line, but by golly, we will — are universal background checks, and red flag laws.”
The debate over gun control is expected to be prominent in the 2020 elections.
“Gun safety, without any question, is one of the biggest issues that we face in this nation right now,” Gideon said. “We have seen across this country, mass shooting after mass shooting take place, and there has been no action at the federal level to actually make sure that we pass smart gun safety measures.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a proponent of gun rights, has said that the Senate will discuss measures aimed at addressing gun violence in September.
A small number of gun rights activists were also present at the Portland event, but took a position apart from the crowd on a street corner near the park. One waved a large American flag, and others held signs and wore orange shirts that said “Guns Save Lives.” Among them was Cherie Wilder of Gun Owners of Maine, a group that advocates for gun rights and offers free gun safety training.
“Nobody wants gun violence, but criminals do not obey laws. Passing laws will only hurt the already law-abiding citizens,” Wilder said. “I can’t think of a single Second Amendment infringement that’s been recommended by the liberals, the left, the Democrats that I can agree with.”
Wilder also said that mass violence was a “mental health issue.”
“Mental health support is needed because they’re [violent people are] going to hit people with their cars. They’re going to stab people. They’re going to throw rocks at people, they’ll throw them off a cliff,” she said. “It’s a mental health issue.”
The focus on mental health reform is a theme echoed by President Donald Trump, who recently stated that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”
The American Psychological Association issued a dissenting statement: “Blaming mental illness for the gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available.” The group said that ready access to guns in the United States “means more deaths that occur more quickly, whether in a mass shooting or in someone’s own home.”
Despite the heated debate around gun control that is emerging from the recent mass shootings, some activists in Maine believe the nation can come together on a workable response.
“We’re anti-gun violence and pro-gun safety, and I really think that’s a common ground that we have with gun owners, no matter where they live, is we all want our children and our citizens to be safe around guns,” said Jessica Curran-Lamoureux with Moms Demand Action. “We can come together and work on that. And I really think it’s time to see how much we have in common, rather than what divides us.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.